Beach Fossils breaks the corporate mold on ‘Somersault’
Mike Donovan | Monday, May 1, 2017
Beach Fossils, while it’d never admit it, forms an integral part of the indie rock corporate structure. The sonic trajectory from 2010’s “Beach Fossils” to the upcoming “Somersault” provides evidence that the subversion-hungry Brooklynites are little more than a cog in the (figurative) multinational musical conglomerate — Sardonic Anglo-centric Dream Pop, Inc. (aka SADpop).
On 2010’s “Beach Fossils,” Dustin Payseur and posse were the quintessential interns. Everything they did was meticulously calculated to flatter SADpop’s founders — Joy Division, Bauhaus, the entire C86 movement — and board — Real Estate and their derivatives. By combining the unchecked lyrical morbidity and lightly dissonant overdrive on tracks like “Sometimes” and “Wide Awake” with Payseur’s heavily reverberated and prototypically millennial ramblings about teen angst on tracks like “Youth” and “Daydream,” Beach Fossils molded its eponymous debut into a poster for the hipster machine.
With 2011’s “What a Pleasure,” their second record with the label Captured Tracks, the members of Beach Fossils sunk into their role as full-time SADpop employees. The record takes advantage of the bells and whistles that come with moderate success. The larger recording budget allowed the band to pursue a cleaner guitar and vocal sound, and its newfound reputation drew the attention of fellow SADpoppers Wild Nothing, who make a guest appearance on the track “Out in the Way.” However, the record also hints that Beach Fossils might be falling into a workplace rhythm. The best songs on “What a Pleasure” — the title track and “Out in the Way” — are listenable and even pleasant, but they don’t offer any engaging emotional food to chew on.
2013’s “Clash the Truth” marked the intermediate touring band’s midlife crisis. Using punk and noise motifs as a crutch, Beach Fossils tried to shake SADpop’s hipster norms with an aggressively cynical, dangerously simplistic lens. The poor execution of the album, however, reduced these attacks to pettiness. The title track, with its laundry list of millennial watchwords — “Dream rebel, trust, youth, free, life, clash, truth” — took a stab at the profound but flounders in its shallowness. Likewise, other tracks on the album like “Generation Synthetic” and “Caustic Cross” lob hulking verbal bricks at the impenetrable fortifications of religion and culture. The album pits itself against a black-and-white, monolithic worldview but fails to take into account any grey area.
It climbed up the musical corporate ladder, invested in monotony and rebelled when the monotony reached its boiling point. Now, Beach Fossils stands in a critical position. Its next record, if it is to succeed, must incorporate the peaks of the band’s history in a display of innovation and make amends for its past mistakes. This is a tall order, one that few bands in the SADpop machine can successfully fill.
On the leaked version of the album “Somersault,” on sale June 2, exhibits all the tools necessary to achieve this level of musical maturity. By embracing the best parts of the SADpop conglomerate — melody and a sense of rebellion — and shirking its main pitfall — a tendency towards selfish unoriginality — this next era of Beach Fossils may finally break out of the mold it has so successfully defined.
“Somersault” subverts with refinement. While most modern SADpoppers stock their repertoire of influences with punk and twee, Payseur channels John Cale by dipping into the art music well. Layers of classical instrumentation contrast lush sting tambour with more assertive rhythms of the percussion section, piano and harpsichord. The resulting effect improves on the traditional pop progression in an interesting yet palatable way.
The lead single, “This Year,” and harpsichord laden “Closer Together” exemplify Beach Fossils’ take on chamber pop. “This Year” bolsters its shimmering sentimentality with minimalist string embellishments. The song’s clear, twee-inspired bones imply a shambling nature that the refinement of the strings subtly offsets. The resulting texture is engaging but not at all alarming. Unlike “This Year,” “Closer Together” asserts classical influences emphatically. The harpsichord’s uncommon tones draw the listener into a new, exploratory soundscape. The chord changes, which refuse to adhere to trusted pop structures, double down on the harpsichords’ eccentricity. With each measure, the listener falls deeper into a textural vortex.
The traditional guitar pop tracks on “Somersault” — “Be Nothing” and “That’s All for Now” — benefit from tight production and heightened lyricism. “That’s All for Now” makes use of acoustic guitars and rootsy percussion to perpetrate comfort and confidence. “Be Nothing” opts for New Wave minimalism, adding layered chords and reverb only to emphasize emotional peaks. Lyrically, both tracks have moved away from the blind simplicity of “Clash the Truth.” “That’s All for Now” pedals on the motif that the we should “keep moving on” after success and failure, reflective of the album’s forward-thinking vision. “Be Nothing” takes a nuanced stance between optimism and sobriety. “All you got / Is to never have nothing / You wish you had something,” Payseur drones to open the track, pointing to the circular confusion surrounding our desires.
The maturity of “Somersault” sets it apart from the strict SADpop of the rest of the Beach Fossils canon. It’s an album that could lift the band from its former corporate-cog status to a member of a more creative entrepreneurship. Come June 2, critics and fans may not get what they expected from Beach Fossils, but they will get something they didn’t know they wanted.
Artist: Beach Fossils
Favorite Track: “This Year,” “Closer Together,” “That’s All for Now”
If you like: Wild Nothing, Real Estate, DIIV
Shamrocks: 4 out of 5